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Doing big projects with minimal newsroom resources – without compromising

Some things about accountability journalism will never change. Any important investigative project will require patience, persistence, extreme fact-checking and high ethical standards. It’ll involve a significant portion of the newsroom staff and lots of time.

But here’s where accountability journalism has changed: Technology, access to data and grant funding have created a potentially equal playing field for journalists, even in the tiniest newsrooms and in those that have seen double-digit staff cuts and a revenue decline to match.

At recent conferences in Washington, D.C.,  Arkansas and Utah, journalists who work in small newsrooms talked about how to produce award-winning projects without compromising or scaling back.

“If your newsroom finds a great story, give it everything you’ve got,”  said George Stanley, chief executive of news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Journalists there have produced several major projects over the past five years while undergoing staff reductions. Those included an award-winning series on medical testing called “Deadly Delays.”

“Stories like ‘Deadly Delays’ could have come to any newsroom in the country,” said Stanley. “Hospitals and labs were screwing up these tests all over the country.”

Here are six quick suggestions from Stanley and others who know how to do watchdog journalism on a shoestring.

Find the free stuff. Take advantage of free or low-cost assistance, information and  online data. Law libraries are good sources of free information, said Lucia Walinchus, a journalist and attorney from Oklahoma.  Court records through the Public Access to Electronic Records (PACER) service can be obtained free of charge in courthouses, she noted. A site called Sqoop lists free and low-cost resources for journalists.

Don’t have coding skills in your newsroom?  Take an online “coding for kids” course which tends to be cheaper or free.  Need legal help but can’t afford a First Amendment attorney? Check resources like legal hotlines at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and online tutorials on how to handle FOIA rejections.

At Investigative Reporters and Editors, training has evolved over the years to recognize the lack of resources in many newsrooms, said Denise Malan, senior training director.  She now has a workshop called “Investigative Reporting on a Shoestring.”  The Poynter Institute also offers a low-cost online tutorial.  

Crowdsourcing. Particularly for a small staff, finding the right people to interview can take up days of staff time. Sheila McCann, managing editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, said her staff used the Public Insight Network to find sources for their Pulitzer Prize-winning series on assaults at Brigham Young University.

Know the skills of your own staff.  “If your newsroom finds a great story, give it everything you’ve got,” said Stanley. “Bring all the skills and brainpower you think can contribute and figure out how you can best tell the story. You might already have the talent in the room to do things you’ve seen others do that have blown you away.” (The American Press Institute’s Changemaker Network can help identify newsroom skills and peer training.)

Fellowships and partnerships. Through non-profit programs like the O’Brien Fellowships in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University, the Milwaukee newsroom has been able to produce projects like “Outbreak” with the help of journalists from around the country. Tom English, editor of The Southern Illinoisan, received a grant from the Associated Press Managing Editors to produce a project on poverty in a local community.

There’s also the Pulitzer Foundation for International Journalism, Solutions Journalism Network, ProPublica and others. In Milwaukee, said Stanley, “We’re now up to more than $240,000 in annual direct fellowship funding of reporting for these projects and I hope to continue growing that.”

Work with your advertising department. Sponsorships and “adjacencies” can help mitigate the costs associated with big projects. In Milwaukee, a health care company bought ad space with the newsroom’s ongoing “50-Year Ache” project on civil rights. Be sure to include a disclaimer like this one: “Aurora Health Care has no involvement in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project by the Journal Sentinel.”

Find out where you’re wasting time and resources. Accountability journalism has a significant payoff in reader engagement. Prepare for big projects by cutting back on coverage that isn’t as efficient.

We’re doing four times more in-depth investigative and explanatory reporting now than we did when our newsroom was three times larger than it is today.  And I barely heard a peep from readers about most of the stuff we stopped doing,” said Stanley. “When cutting, we have to choose what is most important and focus on that. All the research shows that investigative reporting is what our readers value most.” (The American Press Institute’s Metrics for News program can help newsrooms make those choices.)

McCann had a two-editor team that consistently worked on the BYU project. But the reporters “morphed” constantly, depending on who was available.

At times, two of the five reporters on the staff of the Southern Illinoisian were assigned to the newsroom’s poverty project, noted English. “We cover six counties and we’ve adjusted our coverage to fit with what we have.”

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